Sounds of Kol Nidre
By Marsha Bryan Edelman, Ed.D.

What is the origin of the Kol Nidrei melody?

The melody that stirs the heart of Ashkenazic Jews is of unknown origin, but is part of a body of music known as "MiSinai melodies" that emerged in Germany between the 11th and 15th centuries. "MiSinai" literally means "from Sinai." Of course, we know that none of these tunes came from anywhere in the Middle East, but the hold they have had on Ashkenazic Jews has made them as venerated as if they "came down from the mountain."

How would you describe the melody, musically?

It combines syllabic chanting, one note per syllable, with melismatic passages, in which one syllable may be extended over several notes. Many of the musical phrases used in Kol Nidrei are related to (or at least reminiscent of) other themes that are used throughout the High Holy Day period. Observers say that the MiSinai melodies are "majestic" and "lofty" and are therefore appropriate to the liturgical themes of the day. In fact, the extensive use of melisma throughout the High Holy Days makes the period and its music quite distinctive. Given the importance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the emotional "baggage" that most people carry as we contemplate "who shall live and who shall die," this music adds a degree of theological weight to the service. When the Reformers of the 19th century abandoned the rest of traditional Ashkenazic nusach (the traditional melodies and motives for chanting the liturgy) as being too old fashioned and unsuited to congregational and choral singing, they still preserved the MiSinai melodies, most of which are associated with the High Holy Days.

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Or listen to classic recordings of Kol Nidre on this playlist.

Booklet Section: Seeking Forgiveness